I have clear memories of watching my children crawl across my freshly cleaned kitchen floor and sighing with satisfaction at my thoroughness with a mop, a bucket of water and….yes, household cleaning products. They won’t catch a bug, I thought as I admired my shiny surfaces. They won’t get all grubby, I thought, as I inhaled the smell of lemons/lavender/pine. They won’t come to harm, I thought. Not once did I think – I’ve just increased their risk of developing asthma. But it seems that I should have.
Babies and Cleaning Products
A recent study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal has shown an association between use of household cleaning products in the first few months of a child’s life and risk of childhood wheeze and asthma at age 3. Basically the study is saying that the more often we use cleaning products in our homes when our kids are small, the more likely our children will have a wheeze or asthma later.
It seems that infants are particularly at risk as they spend the majority of their time indoors, have frequent contact with surfaces and have higher respiratory rates, so they are breathing in more of these products.The study showed that some products are more dangerous than others, namely the more scented the product the more dangerous it is to our little one’s lungs. Oven cleaner was a particularly dangerous culprit, but anything scented, sprayed or deodorised ranked badly. Interestingly, girls respond worse to these chemicals. My eldest daughter does have asthma so this association doesn’t just have theoretical implications for me, or for her.
Key Points of Study
There have been many studies linking asthma in adolescents and adults with cleaning products. In fact, one such study found that regular use of cleaning sprays has an impact on lung health that could be as bad as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. Previous studies have also shown that disinfectants can alter gut bacteria which play a role in the immune system and the development of asthma. But this new study, is particularly important for a number of reasons.
Asthma usually begins in early childhood and it has been shown that the airways of toddlers already show changes at a microscopic level. The changes show a thickening of the airway structures and an increase in inflammatory parts of the immune system. This is important as it means that there is only a very small window of time when preventive measures against developing asthma are effective. That is, avoidance of household cleaning products at a very young age may help prevent the development of asthma. The study also raised the interesting point that we already know that there are different types of asthma. Could it be that there is a specific subtype caused by these irritants and could therefore be easily prevented?
Household cleaning product ingredients are many and varied. They are also largely unregulated in the United States. Manufacturers don’t even have to list all the ingredients on the packaging! Anything that constitutes less than 2% of the product can just be left out. The American Lung Association recommend using only cleaning products that “don’t have volatile organic compounds, fragrances, irritants or flammable ingredients” and that air fresheners should be avoided altogether.
Yet this is far from what’s happening. Household cleaning products and air fresheners are constantly sold to us as a means to obtaining a healthy home and advertisements frequently feature babies and children enjoying their clean and healthy home. I know that I cleaned my house more than ever when my kids were small. And I’m pretty sure that I used a nice ‘healthy’ dose of cleaning product just to be sure that all those bad germs were nuked. The irony.
And then there is the whole other issue of ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘green’ products. So many of us, in an effort to avoid harmful substances choose these products and in putting them in our trolley in place of the traditional cleaners, we feel safer. But ‘eco- friendly’ or ‘green’ can be entirely different to human-friendly or healthy. To be fair, the claim eco or green doesn’t imply health to humans so I only have myself to blame for presuming that they were.
But the more health-centred term ‘hypoallergenic’, that is one that claims it is better for humans. But can those type of terms and claims be trusted? I now know – too late for my big kids at this stage – that no, I can’t take this term at face value. This was made particularly clear when Palmolive ‘Pure and Clear’ soap used the term hypoallergenic, despite the fact that the soap contained a chemical so harsh that it was named by the American Contact Dermatitis Society as the allergen of the year in 2013. Similarly, Huggies Natural Care Baby wipes are a product that I would reach for if I was trying to choose a healthy option, but the makers of these wipes, Kimberley Clark are currently facing a class action law suit for duping us, as they contain many synthetic chemicals. Clearly, these untested, uncertified claims cannot be trusted.
Today the WHO tweeted that ‘no country is adequately protecting children’s health, their environment and their futures’. This should be an outrageous statement. But even just applied to this one issue it’s true. There is no clear legislation on these products, but there should be. Our countries should be doing this to protect our children.
For now, until there is, here is some advice :
- Choose products with fewer ingredients
- Spray them into a cloth first
- Rinse off the cleaned areas afterwards
- Open a window to ventilate
- If you have an air filter, turn it on while cleaning and for a period after
- Vinegar, bicarbonate of soda and plain old fashioned soap combined with a bit of elbow grease are often sufficient
- Check the veracity of any seals/certification marks on the product
Remember that the cleanest smell is no smell at all.
About Dr. Anna O’Donovan – Medical & Lifestyle Author
Anna is a mum of three children, one with allergies, and she suffers from allergies and asthma herself. She is a qualified doctor and worked as a General Practitioner and as a dentist for a number of years. She is also an award-winning author.
household cleaning products, air quality, asthma, wheeze, healthy home, healthy, eco, green, chemicals, hypoallergenic
References and further reading
MedicineNet : Babies’ exposure to household cleaning products tied to later asthma risk Click here
CMAJ : Association of use of cleaning products with respiratory health a Canadian birth cohort Click here
Science Daily : Association of the use of cleaning profits with respiratory health Click here
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